Ken Pounds: Leicester’s golden star
Ken Pounds sees one big advantage to being an emeritus professor. He shows up for work at 10am, instead of 8am for the many years he was on the payroll at Leicester. And as he says: “It is much easier to park once the cleaning staff have gone home.”
Despite looking better than anyone has a right to at 75, Pounds is noticing some of the signs of old age. He is even thinking of giving up cricket and football after some recent injuries. But in 2010, the Golden Anniversary of his arrival at Leicester just after the start of the space age, he is as active as ever in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Professor Pounds’ career in science has been a varied one. But X-rays from across the Universe are the common theme. In the late 1950s he was working as a research student in the Rocket Research Group at University College London, and became a visitor to Leicester because it happened to have the vacuum equipment he needed to test his prototype X-ray detector. Equally useful, it was half way between London and his native Leeds, making it a handy place to visit.
He recalls that in 1960, when he was hired as an assistant lecturer, the new space research group consisted of just six people, and had a budget of £13,006 for its first two years. 50 years later and after Pounds has served as professor and head of department, Leicester’s space research income is now about £13 million per year.
He has spent most of the intervening 50 years at Leicester apart from a challenging four-year secondment as first chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. As he explains, things have changed a lot since he put early X-ray detectors on rockets and fired them off from Australia. The field is now dominated by a small number of big satellite missions, spaced many years apart. So diversification has become essential to maintaining a viable space programme in the university.
“We now work in Earth observation, of the oceans and the atmosphere as well as the land. We are involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, two Mars missions, and the BepiColombo mission to Mercury. We are also making equipment for an Indian X-ray astronomy mission. This broad research programme builds on the existing engineering skills in our Space Research Centre and increasingly opens up opportunities for applications in other fields such as biology and medicine.”
In his own career at Leicester, Professor Pounds began as a maker and developer of instrumentation and later turned into a user of the data it produces. Fortunately for us, X-rays do not penetrate to the Earth’s surface from space. But seen from orbit, they arrive from all manner of energetic objects. Originally he looked mainly at solar X-rays, but now he and his colleagues observe them from objects across our own galaxy and beyond.
Asked about his own favourite result from 50 years of science, Professor Pounds thinks back to 1976 and the data from Ariel V, next to last in this final series of all-British science satellites. Its most dramatic results came in while a major astronomy conference was being held at Leicester. The powerful X-ray outburst turned out to come from a black hole which was sucking in material from a nearby star. Professor Pounds’ current research is also on black holes. He is looking at the relationship between black holes at the heart of galaxies and the way in which galaxies form stars. This involves studying “active” galaxies which are the most luminous objects in the universe.
An important legacy of Professor Pounds’ 50 years at Leicester is the establishment of the National Space Centre, where the University had a crucial role. Since opening in 2001 it has welcomed some 2 million visitors, including 400,000 schoolchildren. Another was the formation of the Physics and Astronomy department in its present form. This merger allowed physics to gain from the popularity of astronomy among students – a move, Professor Pounds says, that has been imitated by many universities across the UK.
He remains confident that Leicester has a great future in space. The department recently brought in the five-flight NASA astronaut and MIT academic Jeff Hoffman as a visiting lecturer to teach an undergraduate course in human spaceflight. Professor Pounds regards this as proof that Leicester continues to move with the times and will continue to attract top students and more research money. He thinks that non-government entrants to the space business such as Virgin Galactic may push down the cost of putting people and machines in orbit, making Space more accessible and giving a major boost to the space industry as well as to research and exploration. Leicester would be in a strong position to benefit in both research and training programmes.
But he sounds one note of warning: “A department such as this is a great centre for linking teaching and research. I believe ours is much better than the system in France or Germany where many research facilities are concentrated in national laboratories. There are moves to do something like this in the UK, for example with the development of the Harwell Campus, but I believe it is important that universities such as Leicester continue to be the focus of scientific research and innovation in the UK.”